Toil & Trouble – Tess Sharpe, et al

THERE’S A CALM that comes over me when I’m painting. The same one the stars bring out. During the day, I’m high-maintenance like my mamí says. Face contoured and flawless, brows fierce, lips popping. My nails are perfection in whatever shade my tía whispers from her photo on the top of my bookshelf. Amethyst, for emotional balance. Rose, for an open heart. Obsidian to ward against people who look at me with envy—and trust me, there are plenty of them. Last week, when the comments got too petty, I painted a red-and-yellow eye in the center of each middle finger and posted it on my Instagram account—@delasEstrellas. I see you, said the caption. And you can’t touch me. That one got 38k likes. It’s still being reblogged on Tumblr hundreds of times a day. People call me magic in the comments, but that’s not magic, and I should know. Because when I sacrifice my custom ringtone to the vibration gods and sit down at my desk, the scent of the stars blowing across the Santa Anas and into my open window, I feel it wake up.

The real magic. The kind that’s bound to blood and culture. To history. To violence I say a thousand thanks a day for never knowing. It’s a hum, and a whisper; it’s a guiding hand. At least, that’s what my mom always used to say when I was a little girl, still clean-faced and wide-eyed. Before Tía went through a guardrail in a rock band’s tour bus on a dark, winding highway. Before I was admitted to the West Hills Hospital last year, full of vodka and pills and the strange ramblings of the boy who fed them to me. Before I knew I was born to hear the song of the stars. Tonight, the moon is just visible beyond the waving palm trees, and I can hear the ocean.

My mamí is long asleep, a brown seed planted in that big bed in this giant house beside Bruce-the-life-coach, who says she has the purest soul of anyone he’s ever known. He says it like I should be so lucky, and he’s probably right. But let’s face it, purity isn’t really my aesthetic. At least, it didn’t used to be. I pad over to my altar, eggplant toenails almost disappearing in the plush of my rug. Pink. A little girl’s dream. I’m sixteen now, not that little girl anymore. But she missed out on a lot. I try to throw her a bone every once in a while.

Mamí and I have come a long way since the trailer I grew up in with the peeling paint. The closeness and the noise. The neighbors fighting. The thuds against the walls that I hid from in the little closet where we kept the recycling, counting my fingers and toes again and again until it went quiet. I’m not there anymore, I tell myself now. The waves crash outside, the only sound apart from the stars. Inhale. Exhale. It’s more important than ever that I stay grounded. I light one candle, holding my intentions clear.

A bubble of white light around my body. Around the house. Around Mamí and sure, even Bruce. Keep me safe. Keep us all safe. From what’s out there. From ourselves. The next candle is for Tía Jasmin. She’s back with the source now. The place our magic comes from.

Inhale. Exhale. Mamí says I’m just like her. My tía. That our magic is restless and wild and trouble-bound. But I don’t know if I agree. Maybe we were just two people chasing numbness because we didn’t know what the stardust inside us was for. Maybe Tía Jasmin got on that bus the same way I went to that party. Maybe she was tired of feeling different. Tired of the magic and the way it made everything seem so significant.

Tired of the way someone was always watching, waiting to see what we would become. My fingers shake around the last match. This one, I close my eyes for. When the wick catches, I picture the open sky above my second-story room, the clear darkness that gets even clearer as I project myself above the haze of LA smog. I shake, because the first time it happened was that night, my back against the cold desert ground, the oil-can fire so far away. I was just looking for a little oblivion. A little normal. A little of the dead-eyed shimmer the girls at school wore through the cafeteria after a night in the desert—the kind that made people look at them like they were women. But in that moment, the distance expanding and contracting before my hazy eyes, I found something so much more. Despite the spinning that had sent me to the ground in search of something that wouldn’t give way, I’d never been as sober as I was when the pinpricks of the stars grew larger, taking on color spectrums I’d never seen.

That’s when a voice somewhere deep down whispered that I belonged. And not among the scattered crowds clutching red Solo cups and scuffing their shoes in the sand. I, Luna Mendoza, was part of the swirling color and dancing light of a sky that had never seemed so close. After they pumped my stomach, the hospital shrink said those hallucinations would fade, but I just smiled. Even the emptiness in my veins couldn’t take away what I knew. Back home, I finally approached the altar Mamí set up for me on my fifteenth birthday, the one that had done nothing but gather dust while I tried and failed to forget it. To fit in. That day, I lit the candles, and sober as I was from forty-eight hours in the hospital and a tube down my throat, the path to the skies was wide open, like I’d only needed to find my way once. * * * That’s the journey I take tonight, through the mistakes and the heartache and the new circles beneath Mamí’s eyes. The ones that have a hint of Tía Jasmin in them.

Poor Mamí, doomed to love two girls who followed their magic down the wrong roads. But at least I have a chance to make it right. I’m alive, I remind myself. Alive. I drift up to the stars, repeating it until the magic is tingling in my palms and I can’t feel the rug beneath my feet anymore. Until the Instagram haters, the wannabes, and my mom’s disapproving clucks when I wear NYX Pin-Up Pout in Rebel Soul are all thirty light-years below me and falling. The match still in my hand, I clear the path between my grounded body and the unbound stars. I whisper to Tía Jasmin, and the Water Bearer of Aquarius, and the moon’s pale-faced diosa to send their own inspiration down. By the time I open my eyes, I’m not Esperanza Luna Mendoza Stevens anymore. I’m a star-child.

A bruja with magic sparking from my perfect pedicure to my massive barrel curls and everywhere in between. I haven’t taken a drink or a pill since I came home from the hospital. Why would I? I know exactly what I was looking for in those bottles, and that it can’t be found there. But now, I know where it can. Tonight’s chart is a tricky one. Jonah and Jess and Bree, a poly trio new to each other and madly in love. Jess sent the email, sugar sweet. She knows they’re soul mates, she just wants proof for the living room wall of their first apartment together. It’s not the first three-way I’ve done. Sometimes it’s other poly kids, sometimes new parents and a baby.

In one very strange case a single woman and her dog and cat. It’s not my place to judge, but on the low I bet that Leo dog was the absolute worst. People find me when they need to see the beauty they feel. They find me when they want to be sure, and when they can’t be. They want a little star magic to tell them it’s gonna be okay. What they get is something so far removed from the newspaper horoscopes they’re barely even related. And after all the ugliness I’ve seen? The funerals and the shaking walls and the beeping monitors of my own hospital room? I like to give people that magic. Maybe it’s my penance for all the heartache I caused. My phone buzzes. It doesn’t happen as often these days, but the text makes me smile in a nostalgic sort of way.

Party in the hills, it says. Everyone’s going. Pick you up? I don’t even bother to text nah anymore. They know. They’re still looking for the Luna I was. The life of the party. The girl who would say anything. They miss her. But I don’t. I have the math aspect of this chart open on the Mac screen in front of me, neat black-and-white columns of times, degrees.

They wouldn’t mean much to anyone else—certainly not to the girls trying to coax me out tonight. When I look at them, though, they take on new significance. Magic and the starsong and the guiding hands of my girls in the sky spin stories in the cozy angles, draw glittering threads from the anchor points that will build the foundation of their life together. My hand does the rest, led by the music my magic lets in. A giant sheet of thick watercolor paper covers my desk, and I close my eyes. The breeze plays across my face, and that trine intersection of Jonah’s sun and Bree’s Saturn is so beautiful and I’m flying higher than anything synthetic has ever taken me… I don’t look up ’til my neck is stiff, and when I do, there are the bones. Lacking shading and nuance, just bright blots of color and spidery black veins connecting it all. Their own personal constellation. “M’ija, it’s late,” comes my mama’s voice, along with a tap at the door. The stardust scatters, returning to the night sky.

The blue candle that holds my connection to the ethereal skies snuffs out in a serpent of white smoke. “Mamí!” The rug swallows my footsteps, and I open the door. “Why aren’t you in bed?” “I saw the light,” she says, the familiar mixture of concern and disapproval deepening her wrinkles. I’ve ordered her like, five BioRepublic sheet masks and I swear she’s never used one. It’s a tragedy, really. With her genes? She could look twenty-five. “Stars stay up late,” I say. “You’re not a star,” she bites back. “You’re a girl up at three in the morning with your face painted like a calavera.” Disapproval is winning the battle.

“You’re chatting all day and night with these sinvergüenzas from that Instagram, probably all perverts pretending to be teenagers.” “That’s not even a thing anymore,” I say with an irritated twitch of my mane. “You’re old, Mamí.” Her eyes flash, and I know what’s coming next. But like, honestly, how can she not know MTV blew that catfishing thing wide open before I was even old enough to annoy my primos on Facebook? I almost feel bad. I know where her worry comes from. The scent of disinfected hospital hallway she probably still wakes up smelling. “You think I’m just a superstitious old woman, huh?” she asks, drawing up to her full height of five feet nothing. “You think I don’t know what’s waiting out there when you and those friends of yours…when your Tía Jasmin…” Her sentences fracture when she gets upset, the rift of two languages springing up like a chasm between them. She’s too proud to speak Spanish, even when she’s mad and the English slips away on the tide of anger or fear.

But sometimes I wish she would let down her guard. Show me who she really is. “I’m safe in my room,” I say. Again. “I don’t go to parties. I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. I sit in here at this desk, and I use the gift you passed down to me, and sometimes I stay up late. That’s it!” But there’s more to it than that. The anymore I don’t put at the ends of my sentences now.

Like I’m hoping she’ll forget. Like I’m hoping I will. She can’t possibly know that I’m scared too; it’ll only make it worse. She doesn’t know how I feel that cold against my back, spreading through my body as the sky faded in and out. The rough arms that lifted me. The way the pickup bounced with me in the back on the way to the hospital. The way they left me on the sidewalk outside, not wanting to get in trouble because I was underage. She doesn’t know about the white aura I draw around myself when I light my candles, or the way it’s flickering now. Dying. Her fear creeping in like a black tongue.

“You think I’ve forgotten so easily?” she asks, her voice too low now, the rumble of earth before a flood. She’s a Virgo, but her deep, earthy channels are prone to flash floods. Damn Cancer moon. “You think I’m stupid,” she says. “Behind the times. But you’re looking for glamour, just like she was. That’s why I had to pick you up at the hospital, full of booze and—” “Mamí,” I try to interrupt, but she’s not done. “Listen, maybe this tumbler is the new party. The new backstage pass. Maybe these snack chats are the new tour bus.

But how long, m’ija, until you find the new overdose?” I huff, irritated at the way she always draws us together. The twins of Tía Jasmin’s Gemini twining between the watery blue waves and curls of my Aquarius. Both air signs, sure, both a little strange. But so different… Why can’t I make her see? It’s like the moment she walked into that hospital room I was Jasmin all over again, the little sister she had to identify by one mal de ojo tattoo. “You need to stay close, Esperanza Luna,” she says. “You’re not ready.” Of course, the dreaded first name. Everyone who values their lives or my opinion calls me Luna, but she won’t quit. I can’t even be annoyed, though, because I’m swimming in it again. The reason I can barely breathe outside this ridiculous house.

The reason I didn’t speak at an astrologers’ conference last summer, when I was totally invited. The reason my stomach twists into knots whenever I think of meeting a friend for coffee, going to the beach. Never mind going on a date, holding hands, kissing… If I stray too far, I’ll end up back on that desert ground, too far from the fire, the cold eating through everything. I’ll end up like Tía Jasmin, alone in the wreckage of a bus after everyone else woke up. I’m trying to move on. To embrace my gift. To let go of what I was and become who I want to be. But my mom’s fear is making nests in my chest, and if I don’t stop her now I’ll never remember how far I’ve come. “Stop,” I say, my voice no longer sparking, my Aries waning as her Cancer waxes and waxes. “You have to stop.

” Her eyes tear up. Harvest moon. “Bringing in strangers. Showing them our world. Giving them a taste. That’s how she got pulled out to sea. Those pinche rock stars wanted to see the future. They wanted to use her, have her trace the lines of their palms until they understood. And they want the same things from you. To read the stars.

To give them one piece and then another until there’s nothing left. You think I don’t look at these Instagrams? The things people say? We just got you back, Lunita,” she says. “Don’t go chasing another grave so soon.” I roll my eyes, I can’t help it. “You think I talk to these people? Please. They’re lucky if they get a heart-eye emoji. I don’t talk to anyone! I don’t meet up! I don’t have a single friend, do you know that?” The tides are pulling at us both now, our shared Mars in Scorpio. Like fighting your own shadow. “And this is my fault?” she asks. “Because I remember what happened? Because I want you to be safe?” “Because I’m not Tía Jasmin!” I shout, secure in the knowledge that no one can hear.

“And I’m not who I was last year! I learned my lesson. I changed my life. I’m looking inside instead of outside and I’m healing, but you’re making me afraid to live, Mamí.” The tears are there, just out of sight. I can’t cry, though, not now when I’ve finally made her speechless. “I’m proud of myself, and how far I’ve come, and what I can do,” I say. “I like who I am.” She opens her mouth, but I’m not done. “…I just wish you did, too.” The fight goes out of her, her shoulders slumping, and I almost feel bad.

But there’s a galaxy of spirit sisters and grieving ancestors and a million intersections of stars between us, unreadable even to me. For a second, I think she’ll raise her face, smooth my hair back, look me in the eyes, and build a bridge with her words. Isn’t that what mothers are supposed to do? Instead, she turns away. “Do what you want,” she tells the floor. “Just don’t stay up too late.” And then the door is closed between us, and I can hear her padding down the hall. Back to Bruce. Away from me. I swipe at my lower eyelids with my ring fingers. Some of these girls are into that raccoon-rings, mascara-tracks, nervous-breakdown-chic look, but I have a reputation to uphold.

My hand is only trembling slightly when I snap a selfie, making sure to get my latest chart in the background: @delasEstrellas: when mamí says it’s bedtime pero like, you’re communing with diosas The first comments start before I even close the app. Normally I don’t read them. What’s the point? It’s not like I’m gonna reply. Talk. Make friends. I can’t, or I’ll end up back on my back in the desert, right? Or worse—on the side of the road in the wreckage. But I haven’t closed the window yet, and the next comment pops up before I can: @futureNASAqueen: Your art is dope, but please tell me you don’t actually believe this stuff! You look smarter than that. I’m clicking through before I can rein it in. I’m angry at Mamí and my dead tía, and fifteen-year-old me. I’m so sick of the tiny life I’ve been living in all of their shadows.

And now this? This hater’s avi shows a heart-shaped face, freckles scattered across skin the color of my favorite sun stone. She wears these square glasses that could be awful but are actually cute. Ugh, why does she have to be pretty? This flip-flopping in my stomach is distracting from my rage. What am I doing? I shake myself when the hat reminds me. It’s pink, but there’s a super official- looking NASA logo across the front. This girl is not interested in me or anything I have to say, so why am I still reading her bio? “Future stellar astronomer of your dreams. Flat-Earthers need not apply.” She’s local. “Location: City of Angels.” But something small and sad is already closing in my chest.

@delasEstrellas: @futureNASAqueen you look smart, too, but life’s too short for debates with closed-minded folks. She doesn’t deserve the peace sign emoji, but I add it anyway, followed by the nail-painting one that reminds me I’m too good to let people make me small. The reply is almost instant: @futureNASAqueen: Am I though? DMs are open if you’re brave enough. My heart kicks into nervous rhythm, the amethyst cluster on my necklace twitching along with it. I shouldn’t. What good can it possibly do? A good night’s sleep is the frontline of skin care, and I’ve had these debates before. Science vs. Magic. No one ever wins. But my mamí’s accusations are still ringing in my ears, fresh again after tonight’s latest throw down.

I’m wild, right? I’m reckless. I’ll never be anything but a stupid sophomore who said “yes” too many times. And compared to tour busses and parties in the hills, a debate between haters feels almost tame— even after all the shutting-myself-in I’ve done this year. Plus, this girl is cute. The devotion candle I lit to Tía Jasmin is burning high, flame nearly clearing its glass cylinder, dancing, jumping for attention. She’s egging me on, and it feels good. Plus, it’s not like I’m going anywhere, right? Just a friendly chat. I roll my eyes. If this chat is friendly I’ll say yes to the next nervous dude that asks me out at school. That’s how sure I am that this is gonna end in a mess of blocks and hurt feelings.

So why am I clicking that little message icon? And what’s up with these sparks? @delasEstrellas: I’m doing this against my better judgment, but hey Almost at once, the message switches from “sent” to “seen,” but she doesn’t reply. A minute passes, then two, then three. This girl is not about to leave me on read. Five minutes. I’m legit about to start chewing on my hundred-dollar manicure when that ellipsis finally starts blinking. @futureNASAqueen: Ha! Hey, didn’t think I’d hear from you. Cool. @delasEstrellas: what can I say? I don’t intimidate easy @futureNASAqueen: See? We already have something in common. She ends it with a wink. My heart dips.

I’m biting my lip. It’s ridiculous. Not that you’d know it from the comments on my photos, but I’ve never been on a date. Never so much as held hands, let alone kissed someone. Mamí says love and magic get mixed up, that they make it harder to trust your instincts, easier to get lost. So even when I was partying, it was never about that. It was about glowing up and getting high with my girls and being seen in all the right places. Even with all that baggage, though, I have to admit, this heat in my cheeks isn’t half bad. Plus, I confirm with a glance at my selfie camera, it looks good with this contour.

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